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How the Islamic Right Is Gaining Ground in Pakistan

How the Islamic Right Is Gaining Ground in Pakistan - A Test of Wills/The Power of Religious Emotion

Author: Pamela Constable
Publication: International Herald Tribune
Date: June 23, 2000

AKORA KHATTAK, Pakistan - Far from the gleaming office buildings and manicured army compounds where official power rests in Pakistan, Sami ul-Haq has quietly built an empire of soft-voiced, sandal-wearing followers that makes generals and bureaucrats quake in their boots.

Graduates of his Islamic academy in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, Darul Uloom Haqqania, have fanned out through the region for years. Many joined the Taleban militia in Afghanistan, and some now number among its top leaders. Thousands more have taken up posts as religious teachers across Pakistan, spreading the word of Allah and preparing for the day their nation will become a true Islamic state.

''We don't need political parties or offices with signposts; every mosque and madrassah religious school is our office,'' said Mr. ul-Haq, 62. ''My students are scattered everywhere, and whenever we need them they can influence and gather the people.''

The country's secular leaders, he boasted, ''cannot dare to touch us.''

He may be right. While Pakistan's Westernized elite has long repeated the comforting mantra that conservative Islamic groups cannot command more than a fraction of the popular vote, such groups have gained wide informal sway among the uneducated, marginalized majority of poor and lower-income Pakistanis.

Today, followers of Mr. ul-Haq and a half-dozen other leading Islamic clerics number in the millions, with religious power bases in such cities as Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. None of these leaders claims to seek a violent imposition of Islamic rule, as happened in Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 1996. In fact, their movement has been splintered by personal and liturgical differences.

But while they have not succeeded in replacing Pakistan's moderate, parliamentary version of Islam with their vision of a stricter religious state, Pakistan's maulanas, or religious scholars, exercise a formidable de facto veto over issues of Muslim law, culture and policy that not even the country's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has felt strong enough to challenge.

In part, their power is based on religious emotion: the ability to draw excited Muslim masses into the streets. It also is based on the threat of violence. Some mosques and madrassahs have served as launching pads for armed sectarian assaults, and many also trained devotees who joined the Afghan jihad against Soviet troops in the 1980s.

For General Musharraf, who espouses a moderate vision of Islam, the first test of wills came in May, when he announced plans to modify Pakistan's law against blasphemy, which regards an insult to the Prophet Mohammed as a serious crime.

General Musharraf proposed a minor change that would require blasphemy cases to be filed with higher police authorities to reduce frivolous or false charges. But even such a modest alteration so infuriated Islamic leaders that they threatened mass strikes and ''agitation.'' General Musharraf quickly backed down, announcing that no change in the law was needed.

''We have so many other problems to deal with, especially the economy, that we felt it was not the right time to get involved,'' said the religious affairs minister, Abdul Malik Kasi. In the past month, Mr. Kasi has been visiting important mosques and madrassahs on General Musharraf's behalf, seeking to reassure Islamic leaders that the military government will not attack them.

''The religious groups are not a threat to this regime,'' Mr. Kasi asserted. ''Most of them want to cooperate with us because we are trying to get rid of corruption.'' At the same time, however, he acknowledged that the government could not afford to antagonize the religious right. ''If we hit them with a stick, they will hit us with a gun,'' he said. ''We need to have a dialogue.''

Some secular critics say the army itself is more in tune with a strict version of Islam than General Musharraf. They suggest he cannot afford to override the religious views of his more conservative aides, many of whom rose through the ranks under the dictatorship of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, a rigid Muslim who held power in the 1980s.

Moreover, the major mission unifying Pakistan's army is its rivalry with India, the Hindu-dominated neighbor from which Pakistan was split in 1947 at the end of British colonial rule in the subcontinent. The army strongly backs the ''liberation'' by armed guerrillas of Indian-ruled Kashmir - the only Muslim-majority region in India. But despite the religious overtones of their cause, military officials say there is no place for Islamic fanaticism in the security forces.

WHILE General Musharraf may have the armed forces under control, his aides use battlefield terms to define his wary relations with the religious right. His reversal on the blasphemy law was a ''tactical retreat,'' they say, and he will bide his time before ''opening another front'' in the struggle to build a modern, stable and democratic state.

But some religious groups are already opening fronts of their own. Mr. ul-Haq said that most Islamic leaders supported General Musharraf when he seized power in October, largely because he pledged to curb corruption and install a true democracy.

But recently, he said, ''vested interests'' in Pakistan and the West have been pushing General Musharraf ''in a secular direction,'' while Muslim groups are trying to pull him back.

One battle looms over who will control the vast network of madrassahs that sprang up across Pakistan in the 1980s. These cloistered academies, which teach mostly Koranic studies and charge no fees for poor students, have replaced public schooling for hundreds of thousands of Pakistani youths.

The Musharraf government would like to broaden the madrassahs' curricula and provide the academies with computers to help train students for the modern working world. Some Muslim educators say they already are making these changes, but all insist they will fight any effort by the state to intervene in their private activities.

A second area of controversy is the role of nongovernmental organizations, mostly Western-funded aid groups, that operate in Pakistan. Conservative clerics say many of these groups have a hidden agenda to woo Muslim women away from their traditions and into a libertine lifestyle, threatening the authority of Islam by promoting divorce and careers for women.

''We have proof that these organizations are promoting specific causes,'' said Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, an Islamic leader, in a recent interview with a Pakistani newspaper. If women are allowed to work and travel, he said, ''it destroys our system, our families.'' In Europe, he asserted, women are ''ruined in the name of freedom'' and ''change husbands every night.''

Mr. Rahman said also that he opposed the proliferation of satellite dishes in Pakistan, because they spread ''obscenity and dirt, which is being promoted by the Western world.'' In some areas of Pakistan, Islamic activists have destroyed satellite dishes and cable TV operations.

Not all Islamic leaders take such extreme views, and some moderate clerics suggest the reactionary rhetoric is aimed mostly at whipping up political support through religious emotion. Tahir ul-Khadri, an Islamic scholar who runs a chain of madrassahs, says religious fanaticism in Pakistan is a reflection of its society and politics - not of Islam itself. ''Our problem is not religion; it is poverty and illiteracy and political intolerance,'' he said. ''In 53 years, democratic culture has never been promoted here. Our leaders have been dictatorial, our behavior has been violent, our people have not learned to settle disputes peacefully and respect each others' rights. This gets reflected in our religious life, and this is what must change.''

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